A statewide reform group proposed yesterday a top-to-bottom revision of the way Maryland finances school aid, calling for spending an additional $628 million a year on education.
The plan would favor impoverished school systems like Baltimore's, trying to offset the lower expenditures resulting from a weak tax base. But it offers the prospect of additional money to all schools.
The reformers -- organized as the Metropolitan Education Coalition -- took the unusual step of proposing new expenditures in terms of the children who will benefit, rather than the school systems and bureaucracies that will receive the money.
They calculated that it would take an average of $900 more per child to offer equal educational opportunities across Maryland. But they did not break down how much Baltimore and the 23 county school districts would receive, thus attempting to skirt the hostility that many members of the General Assembly feel toward Baltimore, one of the poorest school systems in the state but not the only one.
"We're talking about offering equal opportunity," said Arthur Boyd, executive director of the MEC, "not spending equal dollars."
Any changes in the state aid formula would have to be made by the General Assembly, which is not in a mood to spend. State Sen. Laurence Levitan, a Montgomery County Democrat who is chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said yesterday that the proposal was appealing because it ties additional funds to performance.
"But as a practical matter," he said, "there's no money." That doesn't mean, however, that it's dead, he said. He predicted it would go on a back burner while legislators digested it, then emerge for serious discussion in future years when the economy picks up and more money is available.
Tru Ginsburg, a longtime education activist in Baltimore who is president of the MEC, said she and the other reformers have the staying power required. "We're here for the long run," she said. "We recognize this is a time when it's tight financially, but in hard times you have to look at your investment in your children and make sure you're doing the best you can."
William Ecker, co-chairman of the group that drafted the proposal and superintendent of schools in Caroline County, said quality of education shouldn't depend on where a child happens to live. "If you have five children and one of them has more needs than the others," he said, "you give that child more care. In Maryland, we give that child less care."
Children in low-spending systems such as Caroline County or Baltimore have older textbooks, larger classes, fewer computers and very little special attention when they encounter school difficulties. In many cases, they also have less-qualified teachers.
While the MEC pegged the increase at $900 per child, that money would not be distributed equally. Those who needed most would get most.
The proposal calls for:
* Revising the state aid formula by basing it on up-to-date cost estimates rather than 4-year-old figures, which would increase basic aid by $322 million.
* Tilting aid to impoverished districts. If effective programs to educate disadvantaged children cost 30 percent more than regular programs, each disadvantaged child should count as 1.3 students. This would cost $101.7 million more a year
* Increasing money for special education. If successful special education classes cost 60 percent more, then each child in those classes should be counted as 1.6. This would cost $118.7 million a year.
* Establishing a minimum cost to provide a basic quality education, and bringing those systems spending under that amount up to it. That would cost $68.7 million.
* Providing a cost-of-living allowance to counties, such as Montgomery, where costs are higher. That would cost $17.4 million.
* Placing a cap on state contributions to teacher Social Security and retirement. The state would pay the total cost up to a minimum, and then pay a percentage of the cost over that.
The MEC, which solicited ideas and criticism from school officials, politicians and tax protesters across the state, held a summit on school spending in September, at which Gov. William Donald Schaefer warned, "If you say what we will do in education is status quo, then I'll say the money you'll get for education is status quo."
Yesterday, Mr. Schaefer's education aide said it was apparent that the MEC had heeded the governor. "They've made a serious proposal and the governor will take a serious look at it," said Judy Sachwald, the governor's aide. "They really have responded to the governor's advice."
D8 Highlights of proposed education financing strategy:
bTC * Increase per pupil spending by an average of $900.
* Link increased funds to school-by-school improvement.
* Establish an "adequacy floor" to guarantee each district adequate funds.
* Establish a formula to link amounts of aid to needs of students, local cost of living and spending needed to achieve success.
* Link state aid to a jurisdiction's ability to pay.
* Reduce reliance on local property tax.